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Battered broadcaster's Bolt delusion

Jeff Sparrow |  26 January 2016

Last week, Fairfax reported that Andrew Bolt was in the midst of travelling the country 'filming an ABC documentary on Indigenous constitutional recognition'.

Margaret Simons The Content MakersBolt might seem a strange choice for such a program. Yes, he opines regularly about Indigenous issues. Yet, in the famous Eatock v Bolt case, Justice Bromberg found Bolt's writings on that subject to contain 'errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language'.

Not much of a recommendation, one might think — particularly since the ABC is ushering Bolt back into its fold just as the Bolt Report (the show for which Bolt abandoned his regular segment on ABC's own Insiders) collapses for want of viewers.

To put Bolt's new gig in perspective, consider Liberal Senator Eric Abetz's press release on 21 December last year about the appointment of the ABC's new managing director.

Michelle Guthrie, Abetz said, would be inheriting 'an unbalanced and largely centralised public broadcaster which has become a protection racket for the left ideology'. He called upon her to 'address the real concerns that have been expressed by the Australian people about the direction of the ABC'.

Now, the notion that the Australian people harbour grave concerns about the direction of the ABC is simply not true.

Every year, Newspoll conducts a survey about public attitudes to the national broadcaster. As Crikey notes, the results demonstrate that the vast majority (close to 80 per cent) of Australians think the ABC does a good job of presenting balanced and even-handed content. About 70 per cent trust the national broadcaster — far more than the numbers who trust politicians, the church or other institutions.

The hostility to the ABC comes not from the population but from governments — and not merely conservatives. As Margaret Simons notes in her book The Content Makers, ABC funding fell 29 per cent from the first term of the Hawke Labor government, while the broadcaster was the only major cultural institution not to get a boost in 1994 from the Creative Nation cultural policy.

When Tony Abbott broke his promise to maintain ABC funding, he was following in the tradition of his mentor. John Howard had done precisely the same thing in 1996: first, pledging support and then, after winning power, slashing $65 million over two years.

These ongoing attacks have consequences.

Josh Bornstein recently compared the ABC to the victim in an abusive relationship, desperately trying to ward off the next blow by anticipating the criticism of its enemies. He argues:

Journalists and producers at the ABC often deploy a distinct methodology in seeking out an interviewee. 'Are you available for an interview? Great. Can you recommend someone else to interview who will disagree with you?'

For an enthusiast of wind power, that might mean nominating an advocate of wind turbine syndrome. Or coal. When a suitable contradictor proves elusive, there is always a default-recourse to the Institute of Public Affairs which can usually be relied on to fill the void.

The show in which Bolt will appear is called I Can Change Your Mind About Recognition (in which he will feature alongside NSW deputy Labor leader Linda Burney). It's a reprise of the formula previously employed on I Can Change Your Mind About Climate, which starred former Liberal senator Nick Minchin (a climate denialist) alongside Anna Rose, the founder of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

That program was a good illustration of the methodology Bornstein describes, a format allowing you to cover a controversial topic with the impartiality of an auditor — one on this side, another on that side.

Indeed, the ABC's broader coverage of climate change shows everything that's wrong with its response to critics. In July 2007, the broadcaster declared it would screen The Great Global Warming Swindle, directed by Martin Durkin. Swindle claimed that climate change resulted from solar activity, an argument overwhelmingly rejected by most scientists.

At the time, the ABC was under intense pressure from the Right about Bastard Boys (a dramatisation of the MUA dispute). The ABC board had recently been augmented with three prominent culture warriors (Keith Windschuttle, Janet Albrechtsen and Ron Brunton); Maurice Newman, the vocal climate skeptic, had just become chairman.

In a concession to viewer outrage, Tony Jones introduced Swindle with the announcement: 'I am bound to say The Great Global Warming Swindle does not represent the views of the ABC.'

After the screening came a special presentation during which Jones interviewed Durkin, and conducted a Q&A style discussion with carefully-selected pundits and a studio audience. The debate descended into farce, with the questions dominated by disciples of the oddball climate denialist Lyndon Larouche.

Skipping ahead three years, in early 2010, two major figures in the climate debate came to Australia. One was Christopher Monckton, a popular climate denier. The other was Dr James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The academics Philip Chubb and Chris Nash would later publish a paper [paywalled] analysing the ABC's relative treatment of the two:

Monckton received saturation coverage ... on ABC media, and was always treated as an authoritative source until the Media Watch report near the end of his tour. Only on television were his appearances on each occasion balanced by opposing sources, and even then he was usually the primary source whose opinions were the occasion for the report; on radio and in online media, he was often the sole interviewee or supported by sources who agreed with him.

Hansen, on the other hand, 'achieved no appearances on ABC television. He enjoyed two interviews on Radio National — one of them on Late Night Live, which goes to air at 10pm and generally features left-of-centre commentary. His only other significant appearance was on Radio National's Breakfast with Fran Kelly on 3 March 2010.'

In other words, the ABC gave huge publicity to a man that most reputable scientists regard as a crank, even as it largely ignored one of the more influential scientists of our time.

It was a depressingly typical response. 'Under attack,' writes Simons, 'the ABC not only jumps willingly through the many, many accountability hoops already there, but adds a few new ones just to show what a good dog it can be, even if it occasionally bites the hand that feeds it.'

A few weeks later, Maurice Newman (still the ABC chairman) delivered an address to staff. It contained a stinging rebuke about the broadcaster's climate coverage, accusing journalists of 'group-think' on the issue and alleging they regularly mocked and ridiculed sceptics.

The fact is, many of the ABC's critics oppose the broadcaster as a matter of principle: not because it's a failure but because it's a success and, as such, violates sacred free market principles. For groups like the IPA, a publicly-funded broadcaster is an abomination by definition. The demands for 'balance' aren't about improving the service; they're intended to wear down the staff and demoralise the audience.

From Bolt's perspective, the new gig is a clear winner. Not only does he get more airtime to push his take on Indigenous politics, he's able to do so on the taxpayers' dime.

What's more, he knows that the more the ABC reflects the cultural preoccupations that dominate commercial media (much of which is owned by his employer), the less passion audiences will be able to muster to protest against the latest round of funding cuts to the broadcaster. No doubt he sees it as a way of hollowing out the ABC from within — using ABC resources to do so.

It's another depressing piece of ABC self-sabotage.


Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.



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Submitted comments

A great piece Jeff, you have correctly pinpointed the real gripe so many critics have with the ABC; it simply isn’t about profit making. Former board member, Keith Windschuttle – whose appointment Mike Charlton amusingly likened to the story of Caligula and his horse Incitatus – set out his objections very clearly in his Earl Page Memorial Oration of 2005. Not only does he think that a not for profit national broadcaster is offensive, he also objects to the public enjoying museums, libraries, and art galleries free of charge. He also insultingly suggested that if it is acceptable for the likes of Derryn Hinch to have to augment his income by doing commercials for ‘toilet paper and erectile problems’, then so ought the ABC’s Phillip Adams and Kerry O’Brien. This is the real objection such people have to the ABC. Moreover, people like Windschuttle fail to understand that Australians are as relaxed and amiable as they are largely because of a mindset created by our public institutions, not just those concerned with the arts but the whole gamut of society: subsidised health care, education, public transport, free public parks whether they be of the neighbour kind or national parks etc. These are the things, I believe, which make Australians less fearful of the future than people of other countries and thus less inclined to grab what they can for immediate satisfaction. I never cease to be amazed at the number of Latin Americans, particularly, who tell me stories of leaving a mobile phone on a towel at a beach, going back an hour later to find them still there, or leaving a bag in a bus only to have it returned to them a day later, behaviour quite unknown in their own countries they tell me. We are that way in spite of those who would turn our public institutions into money making enterprises and it is a great pity that the ABC does not do more to resist them.

Paul 26 January 2016

It does not appear to me that Jeff Sparrow has bothered to read Andrew Bolt's latest piece (as at 26 Jan) where Bolt discusses the ABC project "I can change your mind about Recognition". I will quote from it directly. "We are going to be asked to vote on a proposal to change our nation, for good or bad, and there is much we need to discuss that until now has been barely even acknowledged. Some of those issues are ones that I now realise I did not properly turn my own mind to, and only through these extensive travels and discussions could more fully understand. I have been very lucky to have been granted this insight, thanks in large part to Aboriginal activists we have met." (Bolt's blog 21 Jan) Bolt may well be changing, or at least modifying, his opinion on Recognition. Given that he has such a wide readership, I would have thought that the money the ABC spends on this project is a very sound investment. Jeff Sparrow, are you willing to concede that your line "Not only does he get more airtime to push his take on Indigenous politics" may have preempted Bolt's conclusions on the issue of Recognition? Also please explain, if you would, how something being a success "violates sacred free market principles"?

Gerald Lanigan 26 January 2016

The ABC decision to employ Andrew Bolt is not surprising and continues the ABC tradition of mediocrity and irrelevance. ABC news, current affairs, politics and sport coverage since Mark Scott became managing director about ten years ago has been 'dumbed down' to be indistinguishable from the commercial 'shock jock' radio and TV stations. This dumbing down process commenced about 35 years ago when Malcolm Fraser's cabinet 'razor gang' reduced ABC funding. The only decent coverage of indigenous current affairs is provided by the SBS NITV station. The only decent programs currently produced by the ABC are Radio National programs such as 'Late Night Live' presented by Phillip Adams, 'The Music Show' presented by Andrew Ford, 'The Spirit of Things' presented by Rachel Cohn, 'The Daily Planet' presented by Lucky Oceans, 'The Science Show' presented by Robyn Williams, 'The Health Report' presented Norman Swan and the ABC FM program 'The Midday Interview' presented by Margaret Throsby. TV programs such as 'Compass' and 'Landline' are the best of a bad lot of TV current affairs programs. The best news and current affairs coverage on Australian radio and TV are those produced by international organisations for community radio, SBS TV and the ABC. These programs include the Deutsche Welle TV and radio programs shown on Channel 31 and heard on the ABC, the China Central TV, the Al Jazeera TV and BBC World TV shown on Foxtel, the PBS Newshour shown on SBS TV and the Democracy Now radio program heard on community radio 3CR.

Mark Doyle 26 January 2016

I compliment the ABC in airing conflicting views. There are very few debates on the ABC these days. Jeff Sparrow is ignoring the evidence by choosing an isolated and dated example regarding Lord Monckton's visit. As I remember the coverage of Lord Monckton ridiculed him.

James Grover 27 January 2016

A great article. In its reaction to criticism from the right, the ABC is in danger of achieving the same perception of 'balance' enjoyed by Fox News in America. As a regular viewer of "The Drum" I am apalled at the lopsided selection of panellists which in almost every program includes a member with right-wing credentials on his or her sleeve with far fewer appearances from those with opposing views. The IPA also seems to have an open invitation. Yet folk like Eric Abetz constantly get away with fictions that the ABC has a left wing bias. Such critics, it would seem, are just intolerant of any dissent from their own view of the world.

Brian Brown 27 January 2016

Thank you Jeff for an interesting and accurate piece. The ABC in lots of ways is its own worst enemy and, as you say, has been asset -stripped by both Labor and Coalition in government. But unfortunately content standards have fallen badly under Mark Scott's management. His problem is that he is besotted with 'platforms', i.e. radio and TV channels. On the content issue: there are times during the day when Radio National, for instance, sounds like a university station run by undergraduates. Thank goodness we still have Michael Cathcart with his truly encyclopaedic mind. Sadly RN has largely abandoned specialist broadcasting. For instance, when I was Specialist Editor Religion (I left in 1996 and was the only person ever to hold that pretentious title!) we had a staff in radio alone of at least 13 in all capitals except Hobart and Canberra, with about six or seven in TV. Now there are six in radio - all in Sydney. Within the ABC there is also a strong management push against specialization; the idea is any journalist can do any topic, any time. Spare us!

Paul Collins 27 January 2016

This ABC audience member is totally demoralised!

Tim Collier 27 January 2016

Add to this woeful history of ABC pandering to the right wing the revelations that a senior journalist forced another to attack a Labor policy to "balance" out his criticism of a Coalition policy. See https://newmatilda.com/2016/01/27/nick-ross-bruce-belsham-abc-false-balance-story-so-far/

ErikH 27 January 2016

I am absolutely disgusted with the ABC for employing Andrew Bolt. Now and again, on the long drive home from the night shift, I tune in to 2GB for a few minutes to hear whether Bolt never disappoints me, railing incoherently against Muslims, migrants, Greenies, Lefties and all his other pet hates. Bolt's tedious rants reveal he knows nothing about the people he despises, has done little or no research, and is profoundly ignorant of the issues at hand. He reminds me of the tiresome drunken yobo at the pub, loudly giving all and sundry the benefit of his views on everything under the sun, all based on his own petty prejudices and spite.

Monty 27 January 2016

Thank you for the insightful article. Sadly I find it heartbreaking. Why is it that small men with large influence are hell bent on tearing down great institutions like the ABC. I love Auntie

Marie Ryan 27 January 2016

I tend to be satisfied with ABC programs. However, we know that when conservative governments (extreme right wing "Liberal" and right wing ALP) are in office, they slash the ABC and to please these politicians, the ABC cuts its services and its programs. People like Bolt who are so far on the extreme right should not have a program of their own, but obviously in the interest of balance, from time to time, they should be allowed to be guests on programs to put their point of view. The issue is that Bolt insults those who differ with his point of view and this should not be tolerated just to please the right wingers in this country. I noticed the uproar coming from the right which was caused when Tony Jones allowed Zaky Mallah to ask a question on Q&A. And yet, they would be upset if a Palestinian-hating Zionist was forbidden to put a point of view. They never talk about the extreme bias we find in the commercial media. I just hope that Australians who rely on the ABC for news and current affairs do not vote for conservative candidates who rubbish the ABC. If they do, they will be voting for a compromised public media service.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock 28 January 2016

My view of Bolt is now totally seen through the lens of The Bolt Report and its format... highly manipulate and controlled, not much different to an advertorial on a commercial TV morning show flogging vacuum cleaners or funeral insurance. Whenever I hear Bolt speak now, I can't see the issue he's analysing rationally without glazing over and thinking he's simply a prop for the Gina Reinhardts in the media calling for a right wing mouthpiece to "balance" the ABC. For me, the real leftist aspect of the ABC is not its news coverage, but the fact that people who pay to subscribe to pay TV/web channels still end up watching ABC's programs!

AURELIUS 03 February 2016

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